Céline vs. the Beat Old-Boy Network

by G. Tod Slone

Tous ces gens sont loin. Ils ont changé d'âme pour mieux trahir, mieux oublier... parler toujours d'autre chose. [All these people are far away now. They’ve changed their very souls in order to better betray, to better forget... to speak always about something else.]
—Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Left Curve, a leftist small literary magazine, chastised me for submitting a poem dedicated to famous French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “The poem is good but be careful about dedicating poems to fascists. His anti-Semitism will get up and try to haunt you if you do.”

I was not encouraged to submit any further work, but wrote back just the same to tell the editor he’d clearly missed the point relative to the formidable French misanthropic iconoclast, Céline. Even Allen Ginsberg, of Jewish descent, understood Céline’s greatness. I also wrote mentioning that one was not necessarily anti-Semitic if one criticized a person who happened to be Jewish. Once I’d been dubbed anti Semitic for having criticized an academic piece of deadwood who happened to be Jewish. I’d also criticized persons who happened to be Protestants and Catholics, but that didn’t seem to matter to my critics. Anti-Semitism is bad. Let there be no confusion. Céline seemed to have gone overboard with his anti-Semitic tirades, but he also berated the Nazis and anybody else in power for that matter. Indeed, because of his courage to speak out, where others would not, it is not surprising that he ended up quite isolated at the end of his life.

I wrote Left Curve that it was politically correct, thus facile, to protest against the unfair treatment of women, blacks, Jews, and/or homosexuals, as well as other such groups possessing powerful lobbies. On the other hand, it is difficult to point the finger at hypocrisy, deceit and lack of professionalism in the ranks of the left, as I have done and will continue to do, because that is not politically correct.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was somebody to read back in the 60s and 70's just like Kerouac, Brautigan and Jack London. But I didn’t read him, at least not back then. Sure, I followed, the long hair, bellbottoms and reefer, but never quite blindly. I read Céline when I was ready to read Céline, not because my hippy peers and marketers had mandated it as fit-in required reading. I lived in France during most of the 80's because I’d become an unconvinced, un-evangelized for-wont-of-better wanderer. Events and circumstances there and elsewhere ultimately had converted me into a somewhat raging iconoclast, much like Céline himself had been. That’s when I really examined Voyage au bout de la nuit.

Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were largely responsible for raising Céline to icon status in America. Céline was perhaps their prime hero. Ginsberg and company had visited him in Meudon, France. What they liked about the author was, of course, his unprecedented style of wild, fast-paced prose, as well as his traveling escapades throughout Europe and America. Kerouac, whose own spontaneous “speed”-induced prose was very much like that of Céline, which preceded Kerouac’s by several decades.

However, the resemblance between the beats and Céline stops with the prose and voyage, for Céline was above all else a great iconoclast. The beats were not. Sure, there was “Howl,” but that was all there was. The beats formed a circle of tightly knit buddies from hence the cash began to flow. In fact, that cow became all too irresistible. “Tous ces gens sont loin. Ils ont changé d'âme pour mieux trahir, mieux oublier...” [All those people are distant now. They’ve changed souls to better betray, to better forget…] had written Céline. Indeed, they betrayed what “Howl” had started out to do, conveniently forgetting about injustice and corruption. Ginsberg became a tenured English professor and didn’t dare bite the hand that fed him. “...Parler toujours d'autre chose..,” [Talk always of something else] had written Céline, and indeed, they began speaking about other things such as themselves and only themselves. City Lights published them and they ‘sold’ City Lights. The system had easily ingested and digested them, despite the Buddhist trappings, spewing them out as elite college-boy, book-cover blurbs.

The beats did become beat over the years, reminding me of the exhausted college professors with whom I’ve worked: the same ‘when I was living with Kerouac’ stories and “Howl” recited year after year like rehashed courses and syllabi. Indeed, some of the beats, if not most of them, actually became professors. “Howl” is what is read in colleges and on the radio, not the poems Ginsberg published in later years in the New Yorker, for who but the New Yorker and a worshiping coterie of followers would have been interested in those minor works? Who knows how much money Ginsberg and all the other beats made on the back of old dead Kerouac?
Ginsberg had established a tightly knit old-boy network for the poetry game much akin to the old-boy networks found in the nation’s ivory towers. As in both instances, the networks serve to reward “old boys” through the semper fi credo, always at the expense of objectivity and integrity. Such intellectual corruption is as banal today as political scandal. Who would express surprise at the common sight of one old-boy beatnik behind the mike congratulating another old-boy beatnik? Who would express surprise at the common sight of fawning junior professors praising the senior professors who evaluate them, and senior professors awarding each other emeriti plaques?

Ginsberg had spent a lifetime praising his beat buddies, helping them get published and especially into the fame-game club. He’d written countless book blurbs for them, as they’d written for him. Why was he able to fool so many seeming intelligent people? We’d probably have to ask the nation’s educators that question. His blurb for the poetry of fellow beatnik Gregory Corso is revealing: “pure velvet, close to John Keats for our time.” Should we believe Ginsberg, or should we take a look at Corso ourselves?


  1. nice work. Is it possible for any writer not to get caught in his own ego?